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"Now is a time that people are reassessing things and looking for something that really connects. So what I connect with is what I think of as the essential sacredness of spirituality in life. Whether we call it love and truth. Whether it's spiritual or not. Just humanity and human rights, ecological values. We have to recognize that we're all interconnected, we're all a part of this shrinking world."
In an age filled with confusion and uncertainty, spirituality has gotten to be big business. At the very least, it sells a lot of books. In the competitive market of higher consciousness, Lama Surya Das seems made to order for the western world, though on meeting with him and hearing his story and the journey he's taken to the bestseller lists, no one would accuse him of anything so crass.
Born Jeffrey Miller, he was raised in Valley Stream on Long Island in New York. Born in 1950, the lama-to-be was "Jewish on my parent's side," as well as a good student and sterling athlete. In high school, he earned letters in basketball, baseball and soccer and then trundled off to the University of Buffalo to work towards the degree that his background demanded of him. It was 1969. If it had been any other time, this story might have gone quite differently. Maybe the 2.5 kids, the house in the suburbs and all of the laurels that go with American jockdom. But it was the time of the youth revolution and the world was in confusion. When a dear friend was killed during the Kent State riots, young Jeffrey began to question everything in his world.
After graduation, the questioning found him in India. Wearing the requisite beard and ponytail, he started on what he felt was a path towards real peace and enlightenment. Had he known that the path would span three decades, maybe he would have reconsidered, even then.
Now 48, Lama Surya Das seems almost like a poster boy for spiritual enlightenment. Fit and peaceful, there is every trace of his New York state boyhood in his voice, though not his mien. He professes a continuing passion for sports as well as peace. "I'm not really trying to be a regular guy. I'm just a regular guy." Though this particular regular guy continues to travel the world with his message and -- every so often -- he cranks out another bestselling book to help us all on the road to the shiny forever.
Linda Richards: Are you the only North American Lama?
Lama Surya Das: I wouldn't really say that. I'm certainly the most well-known one. I'm the most well-trained, or senior. I'm sort of the one with the biggest profile right now because I'm writing the big books and giving the keynotes, and it's kind of my personality to be out there.
How does one become a Lama?
Through training. I've had ten or 15 years of monastic training and study and meditation practice. And then you have to do a three year, three month, three day meditation retreat.
What started you on this course?
I don't know. I think it must have been my karma. I was in college in New York at the University of Buffalo. I was brought up Jewish. I'm Jewish on my parent's side, as I like to say. I grew up in New York on Long Island, and I was bar mitzvahed and all that, but I wasn't really very interested in those things in those days. Nobody could answer my questions so I didn't pursue that. In college I met Buddhism, and I met the first American Zen master at the Rochester Zen Center in New York. I was in college and I tried to learn to meditate. I studied philosophy and psychology and those things in college. When I graduated in 1971 I went to India. I didn't want to study at graduate school, I wanted to trace the source of it. I met the Tibetan lamas in the countries around Tibet. I stayed with my teachers for a long time. Buddhist and other Hindu and Yogi teachers. I was away the entire 1970s and 80s. I had a few visits back with my family, and one year in Japan studying Zen and teaching English to make a living.
One of my best friends was killed at Kent State when the National Guard shot the students protesting the secret bombings in Cambodia in 1970. She was 19 and that turned my head around. I had been part of the peace movement, demonstrating for peace in Washington and things like that and I started to feel disillusioned with radical politics and fighting for peace. I wanted to find peace myself, to embody peace and bring peace into the world. I thought I would find something like that in India, I guess. To find my karma from past lives.
I read somewhere that you were a hippy.
I was a college student in the 60s. I was on the hippy trail to India. I had a beard and a ponytail and thought I'd live in India for a few years.
I don't know why, but it interested me to find that you were a fabulous athlete in high school. You did all the sports. You were All American.
Yeah: all American. I'm a regular guy. [Laughs] I'm still into it. I watched the Stanley Cup last night. I love sports. I went jogging this morning.
But that's a fun aspect of what you do, I think. Because it makes you more accessible to people.
I'm not really trying to be a regular guy. I'm just a regular guy. I just share my ideas. They're not really original ideas. They're timeless traditions and ideas and I try to make it available to Westerners today because there's a great hunger now for something spiritual. Not just a new religion. Something experiential that they can have in their own life. So I try to share what I've distilled and synthesized for 30 years living in the East with the masters, and my own meditation, reflections and study and say it in English. It's not threatening, it's not cultish or anything. It's really simple wisdom that we all have within us anyway. We all have the spark of divinity within us. So it's not really a new message, or it's not really a different message. I think it's a fresh kind of revitalized message for today.
You've touched a lot of people with your books.
Yes, and I'm enjoying my Web site on the Internet. That's where ordinary people can make contact. It's nice that I write books and I give lectures. But still I only see a certain slice of American society: the educated, white, liberal society mostly. I think this is a timeless message that anybody can benefit from, so I'd like to bring these ethical values more into the mainstream. And also speak more to youth, not just the gray hairs and the baby boomers.
Have you seen more of a turning towards spirituality with everyone thinking about the millennium?
I think so. For one thing, we've had so many material and technological developments and successes and people still come up wanting. So people are looking deeper. And the great disillusion with the postmodern era, with God, with traditional wisdom and also with our leaders whether religious leaders or political leaders. So people are looking deeper: to each other or to nature. They're looking for values, so I think this is a time when people are starting to think about these things. Of course with the millennium approaching there's a whole new resurgence of issues of a larger time perspective. Predictions from the past. It's also time to realize that the year 2000 is only in the western calendar. It's the year 5000 in the Jewish calendar, it's the fire rabbit year in the Chinese and Tibetan calendars, it's the year 1300-and something in the Moslem calendar. So I don't think the whole world turns around the year 2000: it's the western calendar. On the other hand, we live here in the western world, and we've certainly seen an upsurge of millennial madness. With cults, with doomsday predictions, even the Y2K thing -- whatever that turns out to be, big or small -- it's a little bit of the same. It's a prediction. It's an unknown. People going and building bunkers and...
Right, it's kooky. It's millennial, in a sense. It's a little technological facet of the millennial madness. Just like the Heaven's Gate death cult was. I feel we need to pay attention to that and redress that imbalance and bring forth more millennial sanity into our world. And nonviolence. An ecological view, not a small, narrow-minded, insulationist view but a bigger view. And also think about education and the next generation and what we're leaving them, and so on. Not just think about the short term view about retiring at the age of 35 from our Internet stocks and things like that. It's nice to be thinking to retire to do good works, but I think a lot of people are working very hard to retire to do nothing or to relax. They haven't thought about value and the meaning of life that much. They're young. If you're starting out when you're 15 or 20, and you have a few million dollars in technology stocks when you're 30 or 40 and you retire and do what? Well, it's a good opportunity to start to figure out the meaning of life again.
This is kind of a founding era, in a sense. I haven't heard people talk about that much, but I'm thinking this way. That this is really a time where it's kind of a turning point. Where we can determine our future destiny and put things in motion and try to go into a better direction.
That sounds like the next book.
It is. [Laughs] No, my next book I'm already working on. It's called Spiritual Connection. For making a spiritual connection. I'm doing an Awakening series so it may be Awakening Spiritual Connections and include relationships with that. Relationships to each other and intimate relationships, but also our relationships to nature, our relations to that which is beyond ourselves. Our relations to the sacred in every area of our life.
When do you anticipate that might be coming out?
In a year or so.
You've worked hard.
No. I don't work hard. This is my life. And I speak almost every day so I have a lot of transcripts. It's not like a transcript becomes a chapter, but a transcript has a lot of stuff on it that's easy to re-think and re-write.
I know myself that whenever I speak I put a lot of thought into what I'm going to say, and then in saying it some other stuff is born and it kind of generates.
Yes. It's a really good way to develop your ideas. It's really creative. I think of it all as poetry and creative educational, so there's no limit to that. I have four audiotapes that just came out also this year. It's called Natural Perfection by Sounds True Audio.
A lot of people are looking for spirituality in their lives. It feels like almost everybody.
It seems that way. A lot of people are buying the books. It's a bestseller. It's jumping off the shelves. My last one [Awakening the Buddha Within] was pretty intense. You know, a 400-page book that was Buddhism for the rest of us, but it's still Buddhism. It sold 60 or 70,000 copies in hardcover and over 100,000 in softcover. This is very much contemporary spirituality. Something you can practice with or without converting to anything or from anything. If you're agnostic or an atheist, you can still benefit from it. I have chapters in here on prayer; on yoga, on gardening, on nature walks, writing haiku, ways of lightening up as well as enlightening up: so there's nothing to convert to or convert from, but we have become more spiritual, with or without the religious overlay.
I like that you've created the book in a series of short essays. It feels like it might be essay-a-day for some people. They could just take their message with them to bed. Is that intentional?
You mean like a manual or a workbook? Yes. For example, my partner's mother who lives in Kentucky reads a chapter every morning at breakfast. And she has a study group where her and her friends read it. It's a 75-year-old yoga class. Very middle-America ladies. They love this kind of thing. People are really looking for this. They see spirituality on Oprah, and they see it in their own lives. The questions of life and death. I think this is something that everybody is interested in today. Then again, we have so much material success, but people are still unhappy so people are looking deeper and they're going into therapy or gender politics or diet and exercise or protecting the environment.
You're talking about getting back to basics.
Getting back to basics. Basics and values and our natural resources. We also have inner natural spiritual and heart resources. Not just exploiting the outer resources and trying to find more minerals. When you tear up the earth to find more minerals, when you run out of minerals, what's next? But our inner resources are inexhaustible. We need to turn to our inner natural resources and exploit those a little bit.
What would a beginning course on doing that be?
Well, like slowing down a little bit and simplifying your life. Not becoming a simpleton, but simplifying life and see how much extra stuff we have that's in the way of enjoying things of value. Our schedules are so cluttered that we just go from one chore to the next. Life seems like one appointment after another and we lose time for doing anything else. So I think, simplifying and clarifying our life and cleaning out our closets or cleaning out our garage or cleaning out our schedule or cleaning out our mind a little bit. Like meditation really helps us clarify and simplify our minds. So then what's important to us is more evident. So it's not so packed just with commitments and obligations, but we really choose what's valuable to prioritize. What's valuable to us. You don't want to wake up at 50 or 60 and ask what happened to your life. So being more mindful of daily life. More conscious, more aware. A little more reflective. It doesn't mean you're not empowered, but just paying a little more attention to what we're doing. Like, are we driving to work? Or are we driving to work gripping the steering wheel and doing ten other things at once, so we're not even really driving to work. For some people driving to work can be a nice alone time in the day. Listening to their favorite radio station or good tapes or just think some thoughts undisturbed. Are you gripping the wheel? Are you zipping in and out trying to push the traffic along? Shaving and changing the CD player? Talking on the cel phone, having faxes come out. So we can't even savor what we are doing because we're doing too many things at once.
You're right, I never thought of that. For some people that drive can be like meditation.
Especially if you're sitting on a bus or a train. Even in a car you can listen to chants and just relax and reflect. So instead of killing time by trying not to be there, you can use that time as alone time, or in study or reflective time.
Where are you based?
I have a rented farmhouse in the woods, not far from Walden Pond. An old site, it's been there for 200 years. Surrounded by fields and woods. I live there alone with my dog. I also have my center in Cambridge. My group is called the Dzogchen Foundation. That's where my main spiritual community is. I also have groups in Northern California, in Texas and in Europe.
So you're traveling all the time.
I travel about half the time.
You were absent from North America for a long time. Did you feel a change in the spiritual vibration when you came back?
There's been a lot of change. I look at everything from a spiritual perspective so it's all connected. When I left in 1971 -- it's hard to say this now because it's hard to imagine -- but there were no videos. In those days there were still five or 10 channels, depending on where you lived. And movies. And there were no computers in homes. When I came back and visited in the mid-1980s there was all this other way of spending time or getting information or entertaining yourself. Video stores and video players, computers and a whole proliferation of things around that which changed the way people spent time, I felt. I came back and I wasn't spending as much time around the dinner table or in front of the fireplace or watching one thing with your family. People were much more in their own world and had a piece of their own world: they had their own TV, their own video player, their own computer, their own phone, their own everything.
Everybody has a cel phone today, and everyone is into communication via e-mail, which is good. But also everybody's in their own world or -- again -- in their own room or their own car on their cel phone. There's a certain distancing, also. There's communication, but there's also less intimacy, I think. I say there's more quantity and less quality. Quality time: that sounds so cliché but quality time and quality meetings and uninterrupted time. Who is uninterrupted anymore? You know, you go on vacation and people have their cel phones and their beepers; check their e-mail, check the market: trade, buy, worry, connect.
It's a sort of a dichotomy, too because with all of this technology the world becomes smaller and we all get connected.
The world is smaller and we need to do less to connect. And I like to try to make things easier and simpler, so that's good. But also, we lose something. What we get too easily we take for granted. There's so many connections. Instead of getting the letters once a day and answering them and having some old friends you write to, now there's hundreds of e-mails a day and faxes and if you don't answer e-mail in half an hour you get another one saying, "Why didn't you answer me yet?" So I'm just doing telegraphic: "Yes. Home Tuesday. Call." Send. That's good for certain types of business transactions, but I miss the letters and the long dinners.
Now, what family has dinner together every night? Most don't. People have different work hours. And... anyway, I don't want to belabor this point, but the culture changed a lot. The racial and the sort of multicultural nature of our culture changed a lot. We've lost a lot of our roots and tradition and everything is kind of a supermarket today. So it's kind of a spiritual supermarket also. Which is good because you can get whatever you want. But it's challenging. There's a downside to it too. Which is, you can get so much that you don't know what you want, you don't know how to decide what you want, you don't even know what fits. You want what's new and what's happening and we have events instead of training. Spiritual events instead of any kind of spiritual life. So I think that's a downside.
You said, "We've lost a lot of our traditions." Did you mean lost? Because that sounds kind of sad.
Lost in the sense that we've lost touch with it. It's always there, but I think we've lost touch with it. Timeless values are always there, we can always reconnect with them, but I don't know if we will as a civilization or a culture. We'll see. You know, like where are the old people in our culture today? Where's the value of the elders? They're just thrown away because every billboard and every TV and every magazine shows an airbrushed perfect body 15, 16 or 21 years old. So, what happens to people who are 50, 60, 70 or 80? And they're not in our families, they're not in our homes, so we need to get au pairs and we need to get all kinds of child care, so things change. But also, the more things change the more they remain the same. The 1950s and 60s had their successes and failures, their material progress and development, but also their hollowness. It was not just a great unalloyed perfect era like some people would like to think: the years of success after the war, before Vietnam and all of that started to turn everything over and everybody started to question everything.
Now is a time that people are reassessing things and looking for something that really connects. So what I connect with is what I think of as the essential sacredness of spirituality in life. Whether we call it love and truth. Whether it's spiritual or not. Just humanity and human rights, ecological values. We have to recognize that we're all interconnected, we're all a part of this shrinking world. There's whales dying every day on beaches, there's some reason for that. It probably has to do with the upset balance of the natural order and that's something we need to pay attention to. And there are also endangered tribes and endangered people: endangered cultures and endangered rainforests. And if we lose those things we lose something. I think we need to take care of them.
I personally feel that we're losing ourselves. And that's really a natural resource we have to protect. Not our egotistical selves, but our beautiful selves. The inner light that's in all of us. We only start to see it in like one person, or in our child and we lose touch with seeing it in everyone. We love our pets but we don't love all the animals and we kill mosquitoes and the mice, but we like the dogs and the cats. From a spiritual perspective you have to respect life in all its forms and see light in all of us. I think that's really where the future lies: if we can really love life and cherish life in all its forms and cherish each other and not just try to find out who's right and who's wrong, or which religion or which culture is the best, and then weed everybody else out. So I think there's hope. I'm not a pessimist. I just feel that what we're losing is ourselves and what we need to reclaim is our true selves and our true lives. And for that we have to really open our hearts. It's a matter of the heart, not just of the head. But the head and the heart in tandem. | June 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.
You can visit Lama Surya Das' Dzogchen Foundation on the Web.